American crime fiction and the atomic age

Ilse M Schrynemakers, Fordham University


“American Crime Fiction and the Atomic Age” explores how America's nuclear narrative of the 1950s and 1960s shaped the decade's crime fiction. After the first explosion of the A-bombs, atomic discourse was instrumental in forming perspectives on all themes common to crime fiction: in particular, individual and collective safety, survival, guilt and morality. The A-bomb's unprecedented magnitude of apocalyptic-level violence on civilians generated an uncertainty about the moral justifications for the bomb's use and fears about individual survival. This dissertation investigates how central motifs in the era's crime fiction, the disruptive aftermath of violent actions, its sought-after containment, and psychological effects, are rich with parallels to the anxieties and fears illustrated by this atomic sensibility. Through a critique of America's nuclear narrative, chapter one considers how the characters in Patricia Highsmith's Strangers on a Train (1950), The Blunderer (1954), and The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) all push themselves to moral extremes. I view the psychological repercussions for their violent actions as exhibiting components of America's own identity struggles after the A-bomb's detonation. My second chapter centers on atomized individuals in Richard Wright's The Outsider (1953) and Savage Holiday (1954). I explore how random, violent accidents propel the novels' protagonists to perform violent actions, to seek rationale for them, and then ultimately to suffer dismal fates. Such plot conventions are indicative of an atomic mentality, specifically the rationale for using of the A-bomb to end World War II. Chapters three and four discuss how post-bomb crime fiction portrays the disintegration and destruction of the familial paradigm. Given how the nation's containment policy positioned domesticity as a buffer to the bomb's ever-present threat to existence, this dissertation proposes that such concerns reflect America's evolving nuclear narrative. Chapter three explores the subtle link between familial and atomic anxiety in selected novels by Ross Macdonald. My final chapter analyzes how in Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, the narrative both obfuscates and explains the crime, representing the nuclear age's rampant ethos, one preoccupied with the prevention of and explanation for the constant threat to the security and future of the American way of life.

Subject Area

Modern literature|American studies|American literature

Recommended Citation

Schrynemakers, Ilse M, "American crime fiction and the atomic age" (2009). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3377055.